The case of the missing COINS

In line with a promise made before the election, George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchquer, made available on 4 June the Treasury’s COINS database.
This is the Combined Online Information System that reports Government spending across departments in a consistent format. More than 3.25 million data items were released, sending data wonks into a frenzy of excitement.
This data covers 2009-10, and more is promised. Next spring the Government will publish Whole of Government Accounts (WGA) data for the same year, covering all the transactions carried out by government departments, 553 local authorities and 320 NHS trusts, audited to IFRS (International Financial Reporting Standards). 
But none of this WGA data appeared on 4 June, although the Treasury has been collecting it for the past ten years. Lisa Evans, lead researcher on Where Does My Money Go? an invaluable website on Government spending, put in an FoI request for WGA data for a sample year, 2008-09.
In reply, she has reported, the Treasury acknowledged that it had this data, but declined to release it under the section of the FoI Act relating to the formulation and development of government policy. The information had been collected as part of the WGA “dry run”, she was told, was incomplete and had not been formally audited.
The Treasury gave four reasons why it should be released:

  • The general public interest in disclosure and an informing the public about government deliberations;
  • Assisting a public understanding of the issue as preparation for government’s publicly-stated intention to produce cross-departmental, commercial-style accounts;
  • The Government placing on public record its preparatory work in developing cross-departmental accounting; and
  •  Increasing public confidence in the robustness of future cross-departmental accounts by demonstrating the rigour of the work conducted thus far.

And three why it shouldn’t:

  • The Government has undertaken to publish IFRS-based WGA for 2009-10 and is placing its efforts in ensuring that such accounts can be produced;
  • As the information is incomplete and uncertificated, a premature disclosure of information at this time would stand to hamper the development and consideration of future work in this area; and
  •  Ministers and officials need space in which to develop policy, including space for the development of policy through an iterative process of testing and refining ideas. This process could be weakened if information is release prematurely or when proposals were not finalised, as this could lead to poorer decision-making.

On balance, the nays had it. The Treasury refused Ms Evans’ request. I take this to mean that officials want the freedom to tinker with the precise presentation of the data, and that releasing the figures for 2008-09 now might prejudice that freedom – especially as the letter (attached below) says that the balance of interest may change once the first set of accounts has been published.

So although we’ve got open data, which be welcomed, we haven’t got it all. Or not yet, at least.

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